If you’ve been keeping an eye on the news lately, you’ll have noticed a steady stream of cabinet ministers revolving across your screen during the daily COVID-19 update. It seems like every evening there’s a new politician hopping up on their podium, telling us how the government is following only ‘the best’ science to help us all get back to normal – whatever normal is these days anyway.
In passing this term around like it’s the seasonal flu, the government is increasingly presenting science as though it provides all the answers. In reality, the basic principle that evidence exists to be challenged is what drives innovation and deeper understanding in the field. Evidence based decisions are a fundamental part of the careers of every researcher, academic, and science student Anyone who’s ever studied it will tell you that science would not exist if not for uncertainty. It teaches us to be sceptical, to be critical, and to question everything we’re told to accept.
You would think then, that in leading the response to the biggest health crisis the last century, more than a few of our parliamentarians might have a deeper understanding of the inner workings of science beyond year eight photosynthesis. Sadly, you’d be wrong.
Scientists in Parliament
Just 103 MPs, 15.8% of the Commons, have a background in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine). In yet another win for the humanities, only two members of the Prime Minister’s 26 strong cabinet have STEMM degrees.
This isn’t to say that politics, history, and law (the top three subjects most commonly studied at university by MPs) have no role to play in the scientific decisions made by Parliament. Just like in every aspect of life, we need people from all kinds of careers in order to plan the most robust responses to the challenges the country faces. However, when it comes to matters withorigins firmly rooted in the letters of STEMM, I’d really prefer moreMPs to understand that the mitochondria are more than just the powerhouse of the cell.
Some of the clearest evidence in support of more scientists in Parliament can be found within the phrasing of the Government’s daily briefings. It’s a rare day that we don’t hear that their plans are proportional to what ‘the best’ science advises.
When you study any science qualification – be it A-Level, a degree, or something else – one of the first things you learn is that not all science is good science. Indeed, scientists frequently disagree, and the fact that all evidence is open to challenge and scrutiny in the community is one of the reasons we have been able to make such great strides with our discoveries. Even when a theory becomes ‘widely accepted’, the fact still remains that science is rarely certain and its position at the top is by no means guaranteed.
If that’s the case then, why are the government claiming they are following ‘the best’ science in response to COVID-19?
Good science is a subtle art
For something to be ‘the best’, you need consensus. For something to be the best, you need consensus; right now, scientists aren’t even completely certain about virus’ origins. There’s also the caveat that what the government may consider ‘the best’ is far more politically involved than you may expect. It’s well documented that governments around the world can ‘cherry pick’ evidence in any situation to support their arguments, and ‘good science’ is usually peer-reviewed, repeatable, and reproducible – all of which take more time than is currently available.
So it’s questionable then, that the Government is following ‘the best’ data. Good data, maybe. Perhaps even reliable data. But almost certainly not ‘the best’.
That’s why ministers insinuating that scientists are to blame when it comes to examining failures in the government’s response to COVID-19, is more than a little concerning. Implying that science is to blame when we know that consensus is often impossible to reach acknowledges a basic misunderstanding of the way science works. Science cannot provide answers immediately, and we know that widely accepted theories are often subject to challenge and debunking as time goes on. Just look at the Theory of Evolution, when Darwin was denounced as a mad man for his ideas at the time.
Unfortunately, this is just another example of how MPs would be better served if more of them understood basic scientific principles. From solar panels to our nuclear program, parliamentarians are expected to deal with issues that interweave with science so fundamentally that it’s astonishing that many haven’t studied science since they were teenagers. If elementary mistakes are being committed at even the most basic level, we must realise that more serious errors are almost inevitable due to this lack of familiarity.
Looking to the Commons at large and moving somewhat away from current events, a long campaign for increased uptake in the number of people (specifically women and girls) studying STEM subjects at both A-Level and university slowly reveals itself. In the 47th report by the Committee of Public Accounts on Delivering STEM Skills for the Economy, MPs discuss the importance of careers advice and demonstrating the varied roles in STEM to young people as soon as possible.. Yet if they’re trying to encourage more people into science-based roles, how can they justify the low proportion of themselves with such a background?
Just one MP on the panel at the time had a background in STEM, and whilst the committee was primarily examining the need for these skills for the benefit of the economy, it does outline the government’s current approach to promoting STEM subjects. Considering that people with experience usually make better champions for their roles, it seems that Parliament is missing a trick if they want to encourage greater participation in the sciences. Perhaps if they wish to convince young people that a career in science can provide real benefits for the country and their lives, they should first examine why so few of their MPs chose to follow this route themselves and how this could be changed.
Other examples of benefits scientists could bring to Parliament are found in the everyday regulation of common products available on the UK market. When governments are required to hold science-based companies and individuals to account, it might help for some of them to have an understanding of the field they’re trying to regulate. Ben Goldacre, an epidemiologist working at the University of Oxford, highlights the issues surrounding the regulation of the pharmaceutical market in his 2012 book Bad Pharma, in which he highlighted situations where certain regulators were ineffective since they allowed results from poor quality trials to be accepted as evidence that a drug worked.
The situation was similar across Europe, until the German government founded the IQWiG agency (Institute for Quality an Efficiency in Healthcare). It demands more informative trials are conducted by drug companies before the government will be willing to purchase their products. As the German market is one of the biggest in Europe, this illustrates the power that basic understanding of the way science works can have on policy.
Although it may seem logical that having more MPs and ministers with science backgrounds would result in more insightful and nuanced policy making, it may not necessarily be the case. After all, science is about examining all the evidence before making conclusions!
The future prospect of more STEM-Ps
The mark of any good leader is their ability to adapt to new situations and absorb information they may not have previously encountered. The way that Parliament is elected favours the idea that not every ministerial position can be filled by someone with both experience in politics and the background knowledge to do the job. The rigorous, bias-unravelling scientific principles can be taught and similar methods are reflected across degree programs in different formats. Historians don’t just accept the perspective of one source. Lawyers cross examine witnesses to ensure reliability and sound argument. Therefore it’s possible to argue that the number of scientists in Parliament has no impact on the outcome of legislation. This has been studied (ironically) in a scientific trial.
In 2008, MP voting behaviour was observed during the passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which helps to regulate research on human embryos as well as other procedures such as IVF. The study found no statistically significant difference in the voting pattern of MPs with scientific backgrounds compared to their non-scientist peers, whilst controlling for differences across parties. It also found no significant difference in the likelihood of scientifically trained MPs casting a vote when compared to their counterparts, although they were less likely to support restrictions on clinical research. If you took this information at face value, you could conclude that having more scientists in Parliament would have no discernible impact on the likelihood of science-based legislation being passed.
Yet as any GCSE scientist will know, you cannot come to a reliable conclusion based on one, small study. Indeed, when the structure of the bill was examined in more detail, it was found that scientifically trained MPs were far more likely to have influenced the agenda setting stage than their peers. This meant they had already subjected the bill to a rare level of scrutiny, and therefore may have paved the way for other MPs to arrive at a conclusion that was ultimately derived from knowledge gained in their science-based past. Perhaps then, that whilst the bill may just have been as likely to pass, the quality of its contents were significantly improved by the work of MPs with science backgrounds.
In all, the argument for more scientists in Parliament to produce better legislation is dubious but the reasoning behind greater intellectual diversity among MPs is surely obvious. Though there has been progress (there was a 22.6% increase after the 2019 election of MPs with a STEM background— equating to 19 MPs), if Parliament is to be truly representative of the people and its decisions credible, then the wider Commons must improve its standing in STEM.
Even as recently as 2018, the former Speaker of the House John Bercow was imploring more scientists and engineers to stand for election. Plenty of tasks in the daily running of Parliament require basic science knowledge and relying on the internet and advisors could be a recipe for disaster in the long run if MPs don’t understand the principles of the advice they are following.
I’m not attempting to claim that every MP must have experience in the area their role is focused before they can do a good job. There are numerous examples of MPs doing excellent work in areas they were only exposed to due to working in the Commons and, after all, advisors exist for a reason. Yet it’s important to realise that as rows over Huawei, climate change and COVID-19 rage on behind closed doors, much of our Parliament is ill-equipped to deal with the complex, confusing and subtle art that is ‘the science’.
They’re welcome to my old biology textbook if they need it.